Stroad’s Cross first pages

0.

He sat alone in the darkness. Dim light came, from time to time, from somewhere above him to his right, but it was barely enough to let him see the three long mounds in the dry soil at his feet. Beyond them there was a hint of a brick wall. To his left he could see nothing.

Thirst was a thing he no longer knew by name. Dryness, like the gritty soil under his feet, was all consuming.

The only thing worse was the utter boredom. For a while he had counted, but he had long since lost track of the days, of the weeks and months and years that he had sat there. Time dragged on without stop, without change, without even the surcease of sleep. It was an agony, a pain almost physical.

There had been rare moments when, his senses extended, he had felt someone within his sphere of perception. Never for long enough. There had been moments when his unending cycle of dimmest light to utter black had been most feebly interrupted, by he knew not what. His paralysis had prevented him from doing anything about it. The remoteness of these infinitesimal events had kept him from deriving any interest or satisfaction from them. Rather than a distraction from his boredom, they had been an unscratchable itch.

He had not forgotten the past, though his memories now seemed somehow distorted, as perhaps they were. He knew that all within his reach was his — but — was that reach only what his hands, immovable and folded on his lap, could actually touch? Or was it what his extended senses could perceive in the darkness of a night of years?

He had cheated death. He was still alive, still aware, still himself, though he no longer had any certainty about the meanings of those terms. He had power somewhere, but he could not find it. Those energies which he had once used to exercise his power had long since faded.

Sometimes, when brick-muffled sounds told him that there was a storm abroad, he felt the faintest trickles of energy. Then, sometimes, he would think that he was sitting at his desk, or walking through his empty house. But that was only delirium. The energy was never enough, and it could not counteract the unanticipated effects of his last great magic.

He should have been better prepared. He should have been more careful. What would his grandmother have done, had she been in his place? She was safely under the ground, now, so it was a moot question.

His grandmother, when alive, had been thought crazy by her children and her neighbors. It was not that she had ever made any show of her knowledge and abilities. She had been too clever for that. In a world of science, progress, technology, her knowledge could have condemned her to an institution, where drugs and therapy would have robbed her of her mind, while “curing” her of her “delusions.” Her grandson, who now sat alone in the darkness, had been the only person to whom she had confided her secrets.

He, too, when a child, had thought those secrets fantasies. Only later, after she had been dead for many years, had he found reason to remember her stories, to recall her carefully guarded teachings, and to try them for himself. And, marvel of marvels, they had worked.

And had always gone somehow awry, even as his last great magic had. Alone, abandoned, he had sought eternal life. And it would seem that he had achieved it. But to what effect? To be condemned to sit here, thirsty beyond all measure, motionless as the walls which surrounded him. His mind was as dark as his chamber, with only occasional dim flickers from a source to which he could not even turn his eyes.

He was not truly alone. That was the terrible part. The three mounds at his feet reminded him of that, though what they contained no longer walked behind him, or cried silently in his ear, demanding justice.

Justice? Hell! It was he who deserved justice, not they. He had been robbed, of his rights, of his property, of his place. His enemies had worked against him, though they had seemed to be his friends. His land had been taken from him.

Had he managed to get it back? It seemed that he had. He remembered that he had. Why, then, did it not feel like his own?

He had suffered the hatred of his perfidious neighbors, who smiled to his face while sneering at his back. Once he had stood foremost among them — except for that one Other — and had been honored. Then, somehow, they had fallen away. He could not blame that Other for that.

Of course he could. It was all the Other’s fault. Always whispering in secret, not that he ever did such a thing. Practicing his lies, not that he ever lied. No, of course not, it was the Other’s fault, not his.

Then why had everything gone wrong? How had he failed? Everything had worked exactly as he had planned, except —

Here he sat, alone in his darkness.

There was occasional dim light coming from somewhere off to one side, above his right shoulder, but it was only enough to let him see the three mounds at his feet. It was enough to remind him that, in a sense he did not relish, he was not truly alone.

Thirst was a thing he no longer knew by name. Dryness, like the gritty soil under his feet, was all consuming. It parched his skin, his throat, his eyes, and made his limbs rigid and immobile.

The only thing worse was the utter boredom. He had lost track of the days, of the weeks and months and years. Time dragged, without change, without respite. It was an agony, a pain almost physical.

There had been moments when, his senses extended, he had felt someone within his sphere of perception. There had been moments when, nightmare upon nightmare, his unending cycle of dimmest light to utter black had been interrupted. But his paralysis had kept him from doing anything about it. The distance between him and the remote causes of those infinitesimal events had kept him from deriving any interest or satisfaction from them.

Until now.

*  *  *  *  *

1.

The only patch of sunlight in the whole tiny village was at the intersection of the narrow road from Churchill and the abandoned highway to the north. The branches of the huge roadside trees met and tangled overhead everywhere else, brushed against the roofs of the abandoned houses and buildings, and left everything except that one spot in shifting shade and shadow. Fifty years of fallen leaves covered the yards, the roofs, even the tops of the vastly overgrown hedges which separated every yard and lot.

But not the roads. They were free of all leaves and branches and weeds, as if someone came out every day and swept the eroded roadway clean.

Michelle Sexton stood in that one patch of sunlight, which would only be there during the hours around noon. On the corner to her left was a small church, its tower weathered silvery gray. On the right was a huge Victorian house, three floors and mansard attic, its barely legible sign reading “Floyd’s Inn.” Behind her to her right was a flat-roofed roadhouse, its parking lot along the front and on two sides, and plate glass windows which no boy from Churchill had ever come to break with thrown stones. The windows of the little store on the fourth corner were also unbroken. Attached to it was a gas and service station, its pumps with the glass gravity-feed tanks of the late ‘thirties, the gas priced at eighteen cents. It was a dollar twelve today.

Beyond the hedges were other houses she couldn’t see. Behind her, parked in the middle of the Churchill road, was Geoffrey Lattimore’s brand new dark red ‘89 Buick Electra. He had driven her from Chapel Hill, an hour away, with her sister Sandra, and Sandra’s boyfriend Vincent Nicholson.

Michelle was over six feet tall in shoes, slender, dark, twenty six, an aspiring artist. She and her sister had come to North Carolina to look at property they had inherited from their mother. That Vincent lived in Chapel Hill was a bonus. Everybody had expected the inheritance to be a dilapidated farm house, maybe surrounded by new forest, maybe with other farm houses near by. No one had expected to find a whole village, small as it was, and apparently perfectly preserved.

She heard a car door open. “Are you coming?” she called over her shoulder.

“This isn’t right,” Sandra called back.

“This is where we were told it would be.”

Another door opened. She turned this time. Vincent, handsome and athletic, was getting out. Geoffrey was still sitting behind the wheel.

Sandra was not yet twenty one, a senior at college the coming year, a more reasonable five foot five, and very blonde, though she helped it a bit. She was very pretty, dressed to show her figure to advantage, and had been dating Vincent, a year older, since their freshman year. Even without the inheritance, Sandra had wanted to come to meet Vincent’s parents. They did not talk of marriage, but they talked about the future as if it were a sure thing.

There were no bird songs in the village, no insect noises, no sounds coming from Churchill, only a quarter mile through the woods to the east. There was no movement. The only smell was of ancient leaf mould. The river beyond a broken bridge, where the abandoned highway ended, was uncannily silent. The road ahead of her was properly buried in leaves just past the village, and like a cavern under the dense foliage, though there was more light maybe half a mile further to the west. The larger part of the village was on her right, deeply shadowed, the highway beyond it suddenly descending out of sight into a valley.

Vincent came around the car, its color incongruous in this context, to stand with Sandra behind her still open door. He put his arm around her, to reassure her maybe, or maybe to reassure himself. Geoffrey just stared at Michelle through the windshield, his hands on the wheel. She hadn’t expected him to be affected this way.

She rather liked him, perhaps a bit too much for having met him just the night before. He was thirty two, and taller than she by a few inches. He had been as curious as they about what they would find here.

The road from Churchill had curved left through dense forest, crossed a noisy wooden bridge over a substantial creek, and curved right again before they saw anything of the village. Geoffrey had slowed as they came past two houses on the right and a big farm store on the left, and had stopped, unwilling to go further, a few car lengths from the intersection.

He took a breath, sighed, and got out at last. He tried not to appear too reluctant as he joined Michelle in the sunlight. He looked around and cleared his throat, but he didn’t say anything. He had come to visit the Nicholsons for drinks after dinner, and had proven to be intelligent, articulate, with a wry sense of humor, and he smiled at her a lot. And he was taller than she was. He was a lawyer, but he was also an amateur historian, and had published some of his researches in several journals.

“I’ve never seen anything like this.” He was putting on a good front. “I’ve been interested in Churchill for a while, and I keep on intending to do some research there, but this place … I didn’t even know it existed.”

“He could be wrong,” Sandra called.

“Who?” Michelle called back.

“That guy in Chambers Cafe, what’s his name.”

“Mitch,” Vincent said. He gently pulled her away from the door and shut it.

“What he told us,” Michelle said, “was that if there was Stroad property anywhere, it would have to be here. He didn’t say anything about this.”

“Maybe he’s never actually been here,” Geoffrey said.

“He called it ‘Stroad’s Cross.’ And now that I think about it, some of the things Uncle Edward said …”

Sandra and Vincent came nearly to the intersection. Vincent was nowhere near as freaked as Sandra was, but his eyes kept moving, as if something might jump out at him. “Maybe,” Sandra said, “if we can find Grandfather Stroad’s house …”

Vincent looked north up the old highway. “Let’s go up that way.”

“Why that way?”

“Why not?”

Why not indeed? Michelle, with Geoffrey beside her, walked past the roadhouse. The Inn on her left had an especially large garage.

Sandra hesitated. Vincent put his arm around her shoulder and they hurried after. “Who comes out every day and sweeps all the leaves away?” she asked.

“Nobody sweeps it,” Michelle said — the top surface of the now gray asphalt had weathered away, leaving fine gravel and small pebbles on what was left — “or they’d have swept up all this grit too.” Their feet crunched as they walked.

“It has to be the wind,” Geoffrey said. “Roads don’t rake themselves.”

“Damn strange wind,” Vincent said, “that stops just at the edge and doesn’t blow past the edge of town.”

“There are no broken windows,” Michelle said. “Churchill isn’t that far away. You’d think kids would have come exploring, and what boy could resist throwing rocks at all this glass?”

“Maybe there aren’t any rocks,” Vincent said.

Beyond the first hedges were houses, one on either side, as weathered as the other buildings, silvery gray with only hints of paint under the eaves or porch roofs. Their front walks, which went over the ditches beside the road, were barely discernable under the leaves from the oaks, maples, hickorys, and elms. They each had a mailbox at the side of the road, and there were equally weathered garages or barns behind them.

More overgrown hedges separated the yards from those of the last two houses, beyond which there were huge trees, to where the old highway dipped down to the creek and out of sight. Where it came up again it was a densely shadowed tunnel through the forest.

The last house on the right was larger than any of the others except the Inn. Its mail box was badly rusted but intact, and the square wooden post which supported it was perfectly straight. There was a burned out car, thirties vintage, at the far side of the yard, between the barely discernable driveway and the combination barn and garage. Its tires had melted to the ground. Its windows had all broken out in the heat of the fire. Leaves covered the hood, trunk, and roof.

“There’s your broken windows,” Vincent said.

“Not the same thing,” Michelle said.

This was her grandfather’s house. Michelle and Sandra had seen old black and white photographs of it often enough. The house had been painted, the lawn had been grass, the trees had been just big, not gigantic, and the hedge on the south side had been neatly trimmed and only six or seven feet high. There was no way to tell what the colors had been, except that it probably wasn’t white, and the shutters were darker. Now all was weathered gray.

It was two stories tall, with a full cellar, and a nearly full-sized mansard attic, with dormers set into the roof, pushing up through the lower tree branches. The Stroads had, apparently, been the wealthiest family in this tiny community.

“Are you sure this is the right place?” Geoffrey asked.

Michelle went to the rusty mailbox and pointed to the cut-out metal letters on top. “R Stroad. That was our grandfather Randolph.”

“Uncle Edward lived here too somewhere,” Sandra said.

“Shall we go inside?” Michelle asked, sounding more confident than she felt.

She went up the front walk, which crossed the ditch over a small culvert, wading through the leaves to kick them aside. The others followed, doing the same, which left the walk almost clear. She glanced more than once at the burned out car as she went past. There was something wrong there. Why hadn’t it been towed away?

The porch steps didn’t creak. Neither did the porch itself, though the wood was weathered and the only varnish which remained was in the slowly expanding gaps between the boards. There were only two windows in front, widely set, one on either side of the door. Michelle went to the one on the right and looked in. The glass was nearly opaque with dirt, and it was dark inside. She could see only vague shadows. “There’s still furniture in there.”

Sandra came up beside her. “Looks like a dining room.”

“They left everything behind?” Vincent asked.

“Something terrible happened here back then,” Michelle said. “Uncle Edward and Aunt May grabbed their kids and my mother, who had come over to play with them, got in their car and left. They hired a moving company to get their things a couple months later.”

“Why did they wait so long?”

“They had to find a place to live first.”

“And they told you nothing,” Geoffrey said, “about what drove them away?”

“Nothing at all. Aunt May wouldn’t even mention it. My cousins were just a couple years older than mother, and they said they couldn’t remember anything about it. I never got to talk to them much. They didn’t come to Mother’s funeral. Shall we go inside?”

She went to the door and put her hand on the darkened brass knob.

“Probably locked,” Vincent said.

She turned the knob easily. It clicked and scraped loudly. The hinges complained as she pulled the door open.

“Or maybe not,” Vincent said.

There was a rather deep entrance hall. There was a hanger bar on the left with coats still on it, and shelves with hats and purses and other things on the right. Half way to the far end were dimly lit open doorways to the rooms on either side. Just past the doorways was a bench on the left, and a long narrow table on the right, with bowls of dead flowers. At the end of the hall was another open doorway. It was too dark to see what was beyond it.

“I’ve got a flashlight in the car,” Geoffrey said.

There was fifty years of unmarked dust on the floor. There was dust on the hangers and coats and shelves, and on the things on the shelves, though not so thick as on the floor. There was no smell, no mustiness, no decay.

“No cobwebs,” Vincent said, looking around the dark ceiling. “I would have expected cobwebs.”

There were globe lights in the ceiling, one at either end, and a switch with round buttons beside the door. Sandra pushed the one that was out. It clicked in, but nothing happened. Geoffrey cleared his throat.

Michelle went to the doorway on the right and looked into the dining room. Dirt-darkened windows at the front and side didn’t let in much light. They would have been deeply shadowed by the overgrown trees, even had the glass been clean. There was a big table, with a vase of dead flowers in the middle, and chairs around it for eight, four of them pushed back as if people had just gotten up, though there was no evidence of an interrupted meal on the dust-grayed tablecloth. There were side chairs, and glass-fronted sideboards with dishes and glasses inside.

“These all look like antiques,” Sandra said, “and good antiques at that.” She went to one of the chairs, touched it gingerly, looked at her fingers, and almost wiped them off on her skirt. “Why didn’t Uncle Edward have it all taken away?”

There were two doors at the back of the room, the one on the left was open, but it was too dark to see what was beyond it.

They went across the hall into a large parlor, furnished with sofas, chairs, side tables, coffee tables, pictures on the walls, dead plants on stands in the corners. All were gray, almost furry with dust. A bay window on the far side was no brighter than any of the other windows. There was a closed door at the back. The carpet, or the pad under it, crunched under their feet.

Vincent shook his head. Geoffrey cleared his throat. Sandra went to the middle of the room, looked around, looked back at Michelle. “They all died here, didn’t they?”

“Maybe not in this room,” Michelle said.

“And how about all the other people?” Geoffrey asked. “Did they die? Or did they run away?”

“I don’t know. Uncle Edward did mention other people, sort of in passing, but nothing more than that.”

Sandra shook her head, looking here, looking there, as if she were not really seeing anything but ghosts. “Maybe we should go find his house.”

“Is he still alive?” Geoffrey asked.

“He died a couple years ago. Why?”

“You’ll need your Aunt May’s permission to go in. I’m sure there’ll be no problem, but just to be on the safe side.”

“We don’t need anybody’s permission,” Sandra said. “According to Mother’s will, we own this whole damn village, all the buildings on it and their contents, and thirty five acres of forested land around it, everything west of Wilberforce Creek to a marker stone beyond a graveyard, and north from the river to a stone bridge.”

“Damn,” Vincent said.

“Um, I’d like to look at that will,” Geoffrey said.

“You can look at my copy when we get back to Vincent’s house,” Michelle said.

“I really think I should.”

“So how did your mother,” Vincent asked, “wind up owning all this property?”

“I have no idea. I’ve never seen a map, but there are other papers. We knew there were other families in the area, but we thought they were, you know, just farmers.”

“This is all becoming very complicated,” Sandra said.

“Um, Geoffrey?” Michelle said. “I think we really could use your help here. Um, what are your rates?”

He laughed. “Unless I have to do research, or go to court with anything, probably nothing. Vincent’s parents helped me get started, and have been good friends, so I’d feel wrong charging anything unless I ran up real expenses.”

“It’s a deal,” Michelle said, smiling at him. “And you can have the story about this place, once we dig it up.”

“Oh, yes, the mystery of the abandoned village. Now that research I’ll do for free.” He laughed again. He had a good laugh.

Nobody felt like going into the darker parts of the house. They went back to the highway and down the center of the faded blacktop toward the intersection, crunching with every step.

The other houses had aroused Michelle’s curiosity, but now she was spooked. Had the terrible thing which had driven Uncle Edward and his family away also driven everybody else away at the same time? She fought off the sense of uncanny which threatened to descend on her by thinking that, if all this really was hers and Sandra’s, what was she going to do with it?

They came to the driveway between the Inn and its over-sized garage, which apparently had once been a barn. They knew there was a drive only because the blanket of leaves which covered it was lower than on either side.

“Look at that,” Vincent said. He pointed at a heavy black cable strung between the house and a little shed beyond what was probably a small parking lot. “That’s a power line.”

“What’s remarkable about that?” Sandra asked.

“It’s the only power line here.”

“There aren’t any poles either,” Geoffrey said.

“They had to have had electricity,” Sandra said. “Those were electric lights in Grandfather’s house.”

“Maybe the power company took it all out when this place was abandoned.”

“The wires, yes,” Vincent said, “they wouldn’t bother with the poles.”

“So where are they?”

“I don’t know, and I don’t really care. I want to take a look at that little shed.”

“It’s not your property,” Geoffrey said.

“Yes it is,” Sandra said. “And besides, who’s going to know?”

The culvert over the ditch was more substantial than the ones under front walks. It thudded under their feet.

Vincent said “See? Glass insulators.” There was one on the house, and another on the shed. “That cable is heavy duty, not just for lights.”

“What would he need it for?” Sandra asked.

“I don’t know.”

The cable at the shed looped down from the insulator and ran through a hole, which was also insulated by glass. Vincent pulled the door open and stepped inside. “Damn.”

“What is it?” Sandra pressed up against him to look in past him. Geoffrey didn’t miss the obviously too intimate physical contact, and murmured softly. Michelle looked at him, grinned, and rolled her eyes. He shook his head and smiled back.

Vincent took another step into the shed. “It’s a generator, and a big one.”

Michelle and Geoffrey came up behind Sandra. They both had to stoop to see through the rather low doorway. Though they didn’t touch each other, Michelle was very aware of how close she was to him.

The machine hulked on a concrete slab, black and ugly and complicated, filling most of the shed. “See,” Vincent said, “this is the engine that powers it, and that’s the generator itself. That tank is for fuel, probably kerosene.” He touched the generator here and there, respectfully tracing its lines with his fingers.

“Isn’t that awfully big for one house?” Michelle asked.

“Hell, yes. You could have powered the whole village with this monster. Which makes sense. Whatever power there was wouldn’t have been too reliable back then, especially this far out in the boonies, and this would have been the emergency supply. Why here I don’t know. It could have been anywhere. But look.” He pointed to places on the generator where brackets were attached, or where other devices might once have been mounted. “This is industrial equipment, salvaged from somewhere else. See? Automatic cut on. And this relay, if the regular power cuts off, the engine starts by itself, um —” he looked around, “using these batteries.” There was a rack of three on a low shelf, a lot bigger than car batteries. “When they got low, or the consumption increased past a certain rate, the generator would come on. Otherwise it would be off. Damn. Damn. This is one fine piece of equipment.”

He went to the chest-high fuel tank, looked at a glass tube mounted against a scale, opened a cap and sniffed. “Couple hundred gallons of kerosene,” he said. “I’m guessing, but it should get about an hour a gallon, unless you were running flat out, so, um, you could go for over a week running twenty four seven, and a lot longer if you ran only to meet demand. It’s in perfect condition, no rust anywhere. I bet I could get it running in an hour.”

“If you say so,” Sandra said, “but not right now.”

“I don’t have the tools anyway.” He backed reluctantly away from the machine, and they left the shed.

“Right now,” Sandra said, “I think I want some lunch. We could go back to Chambers….”

They decided to do that, but first they went through the parking area behind the Inn, to see what was west on the Churchill road.

There was a house directly opposite the parking lot, surrounded on three sides by its own vastly overgrown hedge. To the left of it was the church, and to the right was the tree-shaded and overgrown cemetery. Beyond the hedge at the back of the parking lot was one more house, and beyond that and the cemetery was the forest.

“I don’t suppose Grandma and Grandpa are buried there.” Michelle said.

“Let’s go see,” Sandra said.

Michelle had never been afraid of graveyards. She didn’t believe in ghosts, or even an afterlife, really. But she felt a thrill as she crossed the road to the cemetery. “Are you sure you want to?”

“We’re already here,” Sandra said. She glanced at Vincent, who shrugged. “It is kind of spooky.”

“It’s not the death,” Geoffrey said, “it’s the age and abandonment. I’ve felt it before, in places which everybody used to know and now are forgotten. People used to come here.”

“The forgotten living,” Michelle said, “not the ghosts of the dead.”

“You have to be in just the right mood to sense it. And not always in empty houses. I’ve felt it in stone circles in England. In an abandoned service station on White Cross road. Once while driving past a boarded up house in east Raleigh. They had all been living places. Being dead now isn’t the point.”

Sandra walked slowly among the stones, trying not to kick through the leaves too much. It was darker in the cemetery than anywhere else. The widely spaced trees had been old when the last funeral had taken place, fifty or more years ago, and now they were huge. Some had trunks nearly six feet in diameter. The markers were mostly marble, weathered and stained, still legible for the most part. There were a few of granite, and even a few older ones of slate, their inscriptions less perfectly cut. The cemetery extended all the way from the road to the bank of the river, and behind the house between it and the church, and west well beyond the house on the other side, to where the road became covered with leaves again.

The trees were closer together at the top of the river bank, and not quite so big. There were none on the steep slope itself, just a rather dense undergrowth. Behind the hedged yard of the house next to the church was a building, fronting on a parking area between the church and the river bank. There were large service doors opening onto the cemetery. It was between this building and the top of the river bank that they found the Stroad plots.

Michelle and Sandra, with Vincent and Geoffrey following, went from stone to stone. There was a Jesse, and a Monica, a Dallas buried beside a Pauline, an older stone marked Harvey and Amy, and even some older ones they had difficulty reading. There were no stones for Randolph or Roberta or for the two boys.

“How far back does your family go?” Geoffrey asked.

“About eighteen thirty. They came from Wilmington. Churchill was only a ferry station then. Uncle Edward mentioned another family named Floyd who came about the same time — it was Todd Floyd who owned the Inn — but he would never talk about them. Apparently there was some kind of rivalry. Mitch called this place Stroad’s Cross, not Floyd’s Cross. I bet there’s a story there.”

“More than one,” Geoffrey said. “It won’t be easy to find out what they are.”

“I don’t really know much more than what I’ve told you. I wish I did. Uncle Edward — he just wouldn’t talk about it. Even when he gave me mother’s papers when I turned twenty one.”

“It’s the history of little places like this which I find fascinating,” Geoffrey said. “The question of why this place was abandoned, and literally forgotten is something else…. I’ll have to come back on Friday when the court house is open, and see what kind of archives they have.”

“Maybe there’s a book here for you,” Michelle said, though that was, she vaguely realized, not what she really meant.

Geoffrey was about to say something, but Sandra said, “It’s nearly one thirty. Let’s go have some lunch, and we can talk about it on the way home.”

“I’m all for that,” Vincent said.

They went past the church’s parking lot to the old highway, then walked to the end of the broken bridge and looked down to the river below. There were no old pilings in the water, which rushed past muddy and brown. There was a similar stub end on the other bank, though there was no sign of the highway which must have once been there.

They looked into the service bays of the gas station’s garage. There was a lift on the left side, near the door to the little store. It had been raised and not let back down again. On the other side there was a trench instead of a lift. Old equipment and tools lined the back and side walls.

“You like old machinery,” Geoffrey said to Vincent. “You see anything interesting in there?”

“I’ll look at it later. That kind of stuff is pretty useless these days, and it’s not old enough for collectors. Except for those gravity-flow pumps out front.”

The plate glass windows of the little store were coated with grime. The darkness inside, and the light reflecting on them from outside, even though tree-shaded, didn’t let them see much more than vague shadows of aisles of shelves, appropriate to what they would have called a convenience store today.

“All that beautiful glass,” Michelle said, “and nobody to come and break it.“ A tiny chill ran down her back.

“We can come look inside another time,” Sandra said.

They went to Geoffrey’s car, he made a three-point U-turn, and they went back to Churchill.

~~~